Beauty and the Rust Belt, Part 2: The Lakefront Dividend Example


Here’s a followup to some of the points made in my last post, and a response to readers and Twitter (X) commenters.

First, a quick refresh on my earlier post. This line of thought started when I was in Detroit last month at the Council of State Government’s Midwest Legislative Conference. After I gave my presentation on what states can do to help cities, I thought I whiffed on a question from a conference attendee. The attendee asked, if your town is a small town, not close to any major metro, not known for any draw or amenities, what can it do? My answer? Focus on quality of life – make the community a comfortable place that offers a good quality of life for existing residents, and people will be attracted to it.

I thought I whiffed, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as a serious strategy. It’s a strategy that’s been at work for a long time.

My previous piece noted that Detroit’s decline happened in part because it became infatuated with jobs, specifically low-skilled, well-paying auto industry jobs, as a growth strategy. Observers with an economic bent will say that Detroit neglected to diversify its economy. However, from an urbanist’s perspective it’s also clear that Detroit neglected to build appealing neighborhoods through its 20th century choices for public investment and infrastructure, parks and open spaces, and other quality of life amenities. As one commenter said (and I paraphrase), “people didn’t move to Detroit for quality of life. People moved to Detroit for jobs. When the jobs left, so did the people.” Perhaps it’s better to view Detroit, and the entire industrial Midwest, frankly, as a 20th century middle class escalator. Their jobs set a foundation for middle class formation – financial security, education, homeownership – at the expense of building a stronger community.

That led me to think of how places pivot from one growth strategy to another, and I saw that many cities did that successfully.

An earlier piece I wrote about Seattle noted how the city pivoted from Yukon Gold Rush depot to timber production. Seattle later focused on aerospace as Boeing grew and then high tech as Microsoft and Amazon developed. Then I thought of Sun Belt cities that used their warm winters and sunshine to spur tourism. They were able to sell the tourism lifestyle as a year-round commodity. That allowed Sun Belt cities to use a low cost of living and lower taxes to their advantage, and eventually develop a significant economy and job base of their own.

Quality of life, the very thing that Sun Belt cities started with to boost their growth, could be a viable option for the Midwest.

Midwestern cities usually haven’t promoted themselves as places with a great quality of life, aside from affordability and comfortable lifestyle. Since the 1910s, our shtick has been “we have jobs”. Our cities haven’t always built the best places, or highlighted our natural amenities. Consider the typical urban form of Midwestern cities of the time. A landscape dotted with numerous large factories, connected by rail. A small commercial district designed to serve the 24-7 operation of the factory’s workers – bars, diners, small shops. In Detroit’s case a special emphasis was given to building single-family starter homes, with housing development booms in the 1920s and again in the 1950s. When a new factory opened, the pattern repeated. Quality of life, in terms of how the city looked and served its residents? It was generally left to the individual – and individual households aren’t known from creating public realms.

One thing that distinguishes Chicago from nearly every other Midwestern city is its open lakefront. Cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo had extensive manufacturing development on their waterfronts. Smaller cities like Toledo and Gary had the same.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: Bikers and pedestrians on Chicago's Lakefront Trail pass Oak Street Beach on Lake Michigan. One cannot overestimate the impact of Chicago's investment in its lakefront as a quality of life strategy. Source: